Lebanon and Israel are stuck in indirect negotiations over where the lines should be drawn with respect to their maritime borders and the scope of each state’s rights to explore for natural resources. But will a deal help ease historic hostilities between the two neighbors, thereby reducing the risk of another destructive war?

The United States (both an Israeli and Lebanese partner) has inserted itself as an intermediary in the hope a deal can be reached. Top officials such as Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habibi have optimistically predicted that a deal with Israel is close.

“There has never been optimism to the extent that there is today,” Bou Habib stated. This is certainly good news. A bargain which allows Lebanon to access the natural gas and oil that have been discovered off its coast could unlock the economic windfall that the country needs to recover from its 2019 financial crisis.

Amos Hochstein, the leading U.S. diplomat, arrived in Beirut last week with a mandate to resolve the two countries’ maritime dispute. Yet the negotiations are facing headwinds from some Lebanese political actors, as Hochstein, an Israeli who formerly served in the Israel Defense Forces, has had trouble demonstrating that he is an impartial interlocutor. Considered alongside the United States’ “special relationship” with Israel, it is clear why some Lebanese believe that Washington is more attentive to serving Israel’s interests in the negotiations than brokering an equitable agreement which benefits both sides.

This scepticism has split the Lebanese approach to maritime disputes. Though many in government favour of diplomacy, others are prepared to use force to guarantee Lebanon the right to extract oil and gas. Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has repeatedly threatened that he will mobilise the use of force if Israel begins to drill for gas before a deal reaches completion. It is clear that, where Bou Habib’s diplomatic approach might be ambiguous, it is exceedingly difficult to misinterpret Nasrallah’s position. If Lebanon cannot take steps to produce its oil and gas wealth from the sea, he has urged, then neither can Israel.

Nasrallah’s position, however, is not mere symbolism. After he announced in a televised speech that Hezbollah had sent unarmed drones to the Karish gas field, the Israeli military announced that it shot three of them down by July 2nd. Regardless of Hochstein’s actions, Nasrallah said, Hezbollah will act to ensure that Israel is not able to reap the benefits from which Lebanon is unjustly barred.

Hezbollah’s involvement in Israeli-Lebanese negotiations has brought to the fore political problems that U.S. and Lebanese diplomats did not initially account for. Israel military leaders, for one, held that the Lebanese UAVs were on a reconnaissance mission which violated Israeli sovereignty over the Karish rig. For its part, Lebanon disputed this and argued that the Karish field’s status cab only be settled through negotiations. In a statement alongside Bou Habib, Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, went further by condemning Hezbollah’s deployment of drones: “Any act outside the responsibility of the government and the diplomatic path in which the [maritime border] negotiations are happening is not acceptable and poses risks that are avoidable.”

Despite Mikati and Bou Habib’s joint statement opposing Nasrallah’s actions, it has muddied the diplomatic waters that they are seeking to navigate. However, the two Lebanese leaders also reiterated previous calls for the cessation of Israeli violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty. A research study on the matter concluded Israel has conducted over 21,000 illegal overflights in the past 15 years. Nasrallah says the government should leverage Hezbollah’s power in the talks to speed up a solution to the maritime issue.

Nasrallah sees Hezbollah’s power as an asset for the Lebanese government in the negotiations. In fact, he has stressed that the Lebanese government has “no control” over the group’s military operations, and, if Israel want to reach agreement with Lebanon – and forestall another bloody conflict – it ought to take into account Hezbollah’s political demands. As Hezbollah has suggested, Israel ought to stop “playing with time“ and remember the billions of infrastructure damage and significant loss of life that resulted from the two adversaries’ last conflict in 2006.

This complicated web of actors – spanning from diplomacy to extra-political parties – has changed the course of diplomatic engagement between Israel and Lebanon. Though both sides still agree that a settlement on the maritime crisis can only be achieved through diplomatic negotiations, the context is rapidly shifting. In light of this shift, Israel’s energy minister, Karin Elharrar, has sent a new proposal to the American negotiating team that, as one anonymous Israeli official said, offers Lebanon the chance to develop its energy infrastructure in the disputed area, whilst still protecting Israeli economic interests. And, according to a statement Hochstein made on August 30, there are positive indications that a diplomatic victory is within reach.

Lebanese and Israeli leaders are making new concessions and compromises that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In pushing for a new settlement, Hochstein is laying the groundwork for agreement that can secure the futures of both peoples. But, if it fails, the fundamental role Nasrallah and Hezbollah have played in shifting the agreement’s international context puts both nations in a precarious position. Indeed, the likelihood of a new conflict breaking out between Israel and Hezbollah – if there is diplomatic fallout – is all the greater.

The Syrian Conflict: Reflections and Prospects

Held on 10 November, 2022


Ola Rifai | Senior research fellow and the Deputy Director for Outreach at the Centre for Syrian Studies.

Mohamad al-Ashmar | Humanitarian professional and consultant in international development and humanitarian crises. International Relations doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Dr Francesco Belcastro | Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby (UK) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrew.

Professor Raymond Hinnebusch | Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Founder and director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.


“Agency has largely passed from Syrians to external powers.”

The nature and impact of external influence in the Syrian conflict was the most prominent issue discussed by the panel. The speakers concurred that the persistence of international interference by powers such as Russia and the US play a harmful and restrictive role in the region, which ultimately prevents the resolution of the conflict.

Tracking Russia and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime since the 2012 uprisings, Dr Belcastro argued that the Syrian regime is reliant upon these powers to the extent of surrendering its autonomy. In light of recent distractions which threaten Russia and Iran’s support of the regime, namely civil unrest in Iran or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of the regime’s ability to hold its ground can be brought into question. Belcastro argued that regardless of the extent of engagement, these external powers will continue to play the role of ultimate guarantor for the Syrian regime, as the regime remains too weak to stand on its own.

Professor Hinnebusch discussed the role of US interference and influence on the conflict, highlighting the superpower’s recent shift in approach from primary to secondary sanctions. Painting a bleak picture, Professor Hinnebusch outlined the key consequences of these sanctions as economic collapse and escalation into further humanitarian crisis. At the societal level, he argued that the sanctions are failing to spawn revolt and have instead instilled a sense of hopelessness, with the struggle for daily economic survival debilitating the Syrian people’s political agency.

“Demographic engineering is reconstructing identity and provoking identity clashes.”

A key theme evoked by the speakers was the relevance and centrality of identity within the Syrian conflict. The speakers explored the topic of identity through the perspective of different players within the conflict, from the Syrian diaspora to Syrian people who remain in the region.

Emphasising the delicate historical process of identity construction and reconstruction for the Syrian people, a panellist criticised Turkey’s recent inorganic transplantation of 1 million Syrian refugees into North Syria, a land which was historically ethnically mixed and is surrounded by Salafi militias, as disruptive to the natural process of identity construction. Taking a more positive stance, a panellist explored the role of Syrian identity as a mobilising force. Focusing on the power of the Syrian diaspora in the Syrian relief effort, they emphasised the force of the
Syrian diaspora in constructing hundreds of charitable organisations worldwide in support of those in Syria, and the way in which the common Syrian identity felt by those involved has helped fuel collective mobilisation. However, the panellist resigned to the limitations of this form of resistance, acknowledging that the diaspora is ultimately incapable of significantly impacting the political situation in Syria.

“The importance of sect was over romanticised.”

The panel was critical of the tendency of Western political figures and media to overemphasise the role of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Dr Belcastro cited this as an oversimplification of multifaceted political tensions by Western powers. Similarly, a panellist identified this tendency as a manifestation of the wider historical trend of the West imposing orientalist lenses upon Middle Eastern subjects. This depiction of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms ultimately places identity groups as oppositional forces, ultimately fuelling inter-group conflict.

Dr. Belcastro expanded this thought beyond the immediate context of Syria, suggesting that this sectarian lens is imposed by the West onto the wider Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape, such as the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf nations. The speakers posed the question of how, acting from within this imposed sectarian lens, the Syrian regime will attempt to negotiate reintegration into regional politics in the near future.

“External Interference is unlikely to ever withdraw entirely.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed that moving forward, the prospect of a Syria without any form of external interference is a fantasy. External actors have invested too much into the conflict to completely absolve themselves of all influence. Ultimately, as we have seen with the US’s shift toward secondary sanctions, it is expected that external powers such as the US and Russia will simply recalibrate the way in which they choose to interfere. Neither Russia nor the US are predicted to completely abandon their role within the conflict.

“The Success or failure of the US’s secondary sanctions on Syria have implications on the global order.”

Russia and China are expected to push back against the US’s secondary sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime, which punishes any company or state who chooses to do business with those that do business with Syria. Moves such as attempting to reduce the use of the dollar in international trade and producing an alternative world banking payment system have been triggered, in part, by these sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime. This has implications far beyond the Syrian context. This act of defiance suggests a gradual shift toward a multipolar global financial order, which would see the US removed as the global financial hegemon.

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